The American Consciousness Has Been Raised About Police Violence, Now What Do We Do?

April 8, 2015

The killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina should be an exclamation point on a year of consciousness rising around the issue of police killings of African American people.   

This killing by Patrolman Michael Slager of North Charleston, South Carolina comes after a month where 111 people were killed by police. The killings in March were 38 more than the previous month and more than double the number of people killed by police in the entire United Kingdom since 1900. Indeed, in just one city, Philadelphia, more than 400 people have been shot by police in seven years.

The Scott killing stands out because the video of the incident did not surface until a few days after the event. This gave the police time to concoct and promote a completely false story of self-defense that would have cleared Officer Slager if the video had not become available.  

The American people are learning not only about how police too often use deadly force in situations where it is not warranted, but also that they know what to say to avoid being held responsible.

As Judd Legum wrote: “Between the time when he shot and killed Scott early Saturday morning and when charges were filed, Slager — using the both the police department and his attorney — was able to provide his ‘version’ of the events. He appeared well on his way to avoiding charges and pinning the blame on Scott.” His version was he feared for his life and acted in self-defense.  The police put out a statement supporting Slager reported in the local media: “Police in a matter of hours declared the occurrence at the corner of Remount and Craig roads a traffic stop gone wrong, alleging the dead man fought with an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed.”

The Post and Courier goes on to report the statement of the North Charleston police who claimed that “a man ran on foot from the traffic stop and an officer deployed his department-issued Taser in an attempt to stop him.” And, then the statement developed the self-defense argument, saying “an altercation ensued as the men struggled over the device. Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.” That is when Officer Slager “resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.”

The article quoted people who doubted the police story. Scott’s cousin said the story was not credible and that Scott is “not a violent guy — never seen him argue with anybody. I just can’t see it.” And a friend said “That doesn’t sound like Walter. I don’t understand. These police keep shooting people, but nobody’s got a gun. It just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care what anyone says. Walter was a good man. No one can take that away.”

A few days later a video came out that showed Slager’s story was false. The officer can be seen shooting Scott in the back eight times as he tried to flee and then going back to where the incident began, picking up something, and dropping it near Scott, presumably the Taser.  The importance of the video is described by Carolos Miller in "South Carolina Cop Arrested for Murder After Video Shows Him Shooting Man in Back:"

"And he would likely have gotten away with it had it not been for a pesky bystander with a video camera.

"The video, posted below, shows Slager firing eight times from at least 20 feet away as Scott runs away, who ends up falling on the grass.

"Slager then calmly walks up to him as he speaks into his radio, informing dispatchers of ‘shots fired.’

"He then orders Scott to 'put your hands behind your back' as he appears to drop his Taser next to his body, most likely an attempt to plant evidence against him.

"The video, recorded by an anonymous witness, lasted for more than three minutes, showing another cop arriving on the scene after Scott was already handcuffed. At no point in the video did the cops notice they were being recorded.

"The witness did a good job of keeping the camera trained on them without voicing any displeasure as we’ve seen so many people do in the past. ..."

Slager is now charged with murder, the FBI and Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is investigating and the family is planning a civil rights suit.  Protests are also being organized by the local Black Lives Matter group.

Another lesson learned by many over the last year is how the justice system is protects police involved with violence against civilians. People have seen two grand jury’s fail. In the Michael Brown grand jury the proceedings were made public and people who followed the case learned how the grand jury was manipulated and misled by prosecutors who served as defense lawyers for former officer Darren Wilson rather than prosecutors of a potential murder. In the Eric Garner grand jury the public does not know what occurred because the courts have refused to make the proceedings public but the video of police choking Garner to death makes the lack of indictment hard to accept. In the Michael Brown killing, despite widespread racism and disproportionate prosecutions of African Americans which has led the Department of Justice demanding changes in the police department, we also saw how federal laws are unlikely to protect people from police violence, as no federal prosecution of White occurred.

And, the South Carolina killing also brings out the inappropriate racial make-up of police departments. In North Charleston the police force is 80 percent white in a town that has only 37 percent white residents, based on 2007 data. This is not as bad as Ferguson where the town is 67 percent black, but only three members of the 53-member police department are black.

Finally, among the many lessons learned in the last year as the #BlackLivesMatter movement has raised people’s consciousness around these issues, is the connection between the unfair economy and policing. These kinds of abusive police practices do not occur in wealthy, white communities, they occur in poor communities, usually communities of color. The Institute for Policy Studies issued a report on March 18th, “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty,” which finds that “Poor people, especially people of color, face a far greater risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for minor offenses than other Americans. A broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park can all result in jail time. In this report, we seek to understand the multi-faceted, growing phenomenon of the ‘criminalization of poverty.’” The South Carolina case demonstrates the point, Scott was pulled over for a broken taillight.

One hopeful difference between Ferguson and North Charleston was the reaction of public officials to the video.  James Woods writes in DC Media Group “Mayor Keith Summey quickly got out in front of the entire incident and did the exact opposite of everything that happened in Ferguson in the hopes of staving off social upheaval in his city.”  Police Chief Eddie Driggers added “I have watched the video and I was sickened by what I saw, and I have not watched it since.” Slager was arrested, charged with murder, denied bail and fired from his job. Consciousness rising by the #BlackLivesMatter nationwide protest movement made a difference.

These are some of the many lessons that are coming to the fore as a result of police violence in communities of color. There are systemic problems in US policing across the nation, no city is immune to these issues. Now that the consciousness of many has been raised it is time to fix the problem.  Is the nation capable of creating a new approach to policing where communities are in control of those who police them (this is NOT the same as community policing), where the demographics of police forces mirror the communities they are policing, where police involved in violence against civilians can be held accountable, and where we recognize the root cause of the problem – police are needed to control people who live in poor communities, especially communities of color, because an unfair economy has created neighborhoods of injustice? These are big issues.

It is not evident that the system is capable of grappling with these important issues or taking the transformative actions necessary to overcome them. But for those of us who are conscious of these realities, we have a responsibility to create a national consensus to solve these problems.

~ Kevin Zeese serves as the Attorney General at the Green Shadow Cabinet